Young whales learn by imitating their mothers, which show them how to breach, or thrust their entire body out of the water. This removes barnacles, but is also a form of communication and sheer act of joy. Lobtailing is when they smack their tail flukes on the water, another form of communication. Mothers will sometimes smack their pectoral fins on the water to get a youngster’s attention. When they transition from milk to krill, she will show them how to scoop up bottom silt and filter it out to eat.
Because, at three to five knots average speed, they are the slowest swimming of all the whales, Pacific gray whale hug the coast during their migration, using natural cover such as rocks and kelp beds for protection.
This slow movement also accounts for the great masses of barnacles they collect, which in turn shelter three species of lice indigenous to this whale. They often wrap themselves in kelp as an anchor while sleeping. Breathing is a voluntary act carried out by half the brain that remains active while the other half rests, much as in a dolphin. A mother will “spyhop” (stick her head out of the water to look around) before sleeping.
Almost immediately upon entering the lagoon, a mother will make the newborn swim until it can go no further. She will then spyhop the horizon, estimate the time it would take a predator to reach her, and that is how long she will allow her calf to sleep, usually on top of her back or supported by a pectoral fin. Sometimes she will roll over and place the baby on her stomach. After this short rest, it’s back to work, conditioning for that marathon swim back north.
The mother is very protective and affectionate. As the calf grows stronger she will allow it to approach boats. A whale approaching boats in Mexico will not usually do so on the ocean. This is a learned behavior that mother passes to her offspring, and not all whales are “friendly.” Out of the approximately 250 to 300 whales that enter San Ignacio annually, maybe 50 will be “friendlies."
Like all youngsters, baby whales love to play, and they do respond to an audience. I have had them try to lunge right into my boat in their exuberance, and watched them rolling with glee or playing “keep away” with a runner of sea kelp. Youngsters, like their human counterparts, are endlessly curious and love to be petted, but also like human children, have little depth perception or coordination at first, so they often slam into the boat in their exuberance. To the touch, their skin feels like pliable rubber.